The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


Using mammalian microfauna to reconstruct Hominin paleohabitats in South Africa

JENNIFER N. LEICHLITER1, OLIVER CC. PAINE1, MATT SPONHEIMER1, PAUL SANDBURG1, DARRYL DE RUITER2, DARYL CODRON3, NICO AVENANT4 and THALASSA MATTHEWS5.

1Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, 3Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, University of Zurich, 4Department of Mammalogy, University of the Free State, 5Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town

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Fossilized faunal remains have long been used to infer paleoenvironmental conditions at hominin-bearing localities, but mammalian microfauna have been underutilized despite their abundance in the fossil record. One difficulty in using micromammals to reconstruct past environments is that the specific habitat and dietary affinities of many modern species remain unresolved. The diets and habitats of micromammal species can also vary significantly from region to region.

This study refines our understanding of micromammal ecology within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, South Africa. We anticipated that certain microhabitat types would be characterized by unique small mammal community structures and that habitat and dietary generalists would have highly variable diets. We assessed small mammal community structure using samples collected from accumulated pellets at roost sites of the African Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and trap lines. Roost and trapping sites were located within different microhabitat types ranging from open grassland to closed, wooded areas. In addition, stable isotope analyses were conducted on hair and tooth enamel samples to investigate diet.

Our results indicate that despite their relative proximity, microhabitats are characterized by distinct differences in diversity and relative abundance of micromammal species. Furthermore, we find that isotopic values, while variable in generalist species, are highly variable even in many species with purportedly narrow habitat and dietary preferences. We discuss the implications of these findings for paleohabitat reconstruction generally and provide preliminary assessments of the Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Gladysvale micromammal assemblages.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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